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Potboiler LLC: “The Future of Publishing” from a Google Analytics Veteran

The next chapter in the beleaguered story of books reads like something straight out of Dave Eggers’ techie dystopia The Circle. Potboiler LLC, a company headed up by Jeff Gillis – formerly of Google – has started developing novella-style reading content for mobile devices. Utilizing an analytic approach to the once-noble pursuit of the written word, Potboiler deploys the same tactics that makes Google Analytics a boon for online business to churn out books specifically tailored to the tastes of the readership.

midnightinjua Gillis sees this as the (or “a”) future of publishing, one where readers who wouldn’t normally pick up your average trade fiction paperback now have access to addictive fiction content for their mobile devices. Potboiler releases serialized novellas easily read in one or two commutes.

Take Midnight in Juarez, Potboiler’s inaugural title in the GetFisk series. It’s billed as a “passionate, hair-raising thriller that deals factually with Mexican cartels.” A new story every month stars Fisk, a powerful spy type and a team of smart, sexy, multiethnic men and women at a 1:1 ratio. This is what comes out of the company’s finely tuned machine.

Potboiler’s M.O. is to design and quickly produce mass-market fiction ebooks and distribute them through Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble. Single chapters get released for free on getfisk.com during the first month of each book’s release. The content is systematically tested to appeal to readers and positioned to become bestselling franchises.

According to Gillis, in an interview with Examiner.com, Potboiler employs the literary equivalent of the Pepsi challenge. “A group of beta readers read text from our stories, and also text from a current bestseller in the same genre. We then asked them which one they liked better and why. We would analyze the results and refine our content and test it in a similar manner again until it tested better than the bestseller,” Gillis says in the interview.

Jeff Gillis spent eight years at Google, managing Adwords, and then leading product marketing for Analytics. He created the Google Analytics blog, posted occasionally there, and spoke on the company’s behalf at conferences. He also holds a BA in Literature from Stanford University. Potboiler is the logical result of an idealistic youth in letters and a likely more sobering career in tracking consumer preferences using targeting marketing tools catering to online retailers. Whether the two worlds should meet remains to be seen.

The GetFisk series adheres to Potboiler’s strict formula for maximized readability and by extension, assumed guaranteed bestseller status: Short sentences, no more than ten words, brief paragraphs limited to three sentences. Dialogue is block indented and labeled with the name of the speaker. Description is kept to a minimum in favor of action.

The result reads like an early draft screenplay dialed to a middle-grade reading level with a light smattering of soft-core sex scenes. Readability is further optimized by the incorporation of graphics, video, animation, and social media components. On the one hand, this takes advantage of the platform: mobile devices are uniquely suited to these kinds of multimedia experiences; on the other hand, it breaks up the text so that sustained attention isn’t required.

The books are written by a team of three writers collaborating on a story – much in the same way a writers room operates on a TV show – with one writer responsible for producing a first draft. While “Fisk” denotes the series’ protagonist, it’s also used as the author’s pseudonym. Potboiler has also intimated that some of the content in these “ripped from the headlines stories” may be first hand accounts by “Fisk” about “Fisk.”

Between the team of writers and the shadowy identity of “Fisk,” Potboiler throws into question the notion of authorship. It’s an interesting one, but one handled in a far more deftly in S., the impressive novel release from J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. That project consisted of a novel, “Ship of Theseus,” written by the fictional V. M. Straka. Readers found in the margins of the book, apparently handwritten notes exchanged between two fictional readers who fall in love while trying to ascertain the identity of the real Straka based on clues in the novel itself and in the story illuminated in their conversations.

Potboiler’s obfuscation of authorship serves mostly to cover up the fact that a team of ghostwriters methodically churns out content attuned essentially to an algorithm to maximize popularity. Forget the question of authorship, the question is whether or not this constitutes literature in the first place.

What is the difference between the output of three people writing to the specifics of a calibrated formula to put out content that is refined repeatedly based on user reviews and that of, say the L.A. Times Quakebot? Quakebot reports for the Times on earthquakes as they happen. It’s programmed to extract relevant data from USGS reports and plug them into a template, in an effort to get the facts out quickly and efficiently. Or consider botpoet.com, a Turing test where you, the reader judge whether a poem’s been written by a human or a robot. The bots generate their poems based on algorithms to mimic human poetry. Some of them are pretty hard to judge. Which of these things is not like the other? In all of these instances, content goes in, an algorithm goes to work, and Grade “A” processed readables come right out.

The next logical question, of course: is this the future of publishing? Have readers bonded so fully with their mobile devices, and have their attention spans waned so dramatically? Are they willing to accept formulaic prose doled out by an algorithm in place of the latest from Donna Tartt? The Goldfinch is a bestselling 771-page hardcover novel that Stephen King compared to Dickens in the New York Times, a more literary trifecta of circumstances you’ll be hard pressed to find. Chances are the oeuvre in the key of Google Analytics has a long way to go.

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4 comments

  • I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, as a writer, this makes me really angry. Not only are they trying to turn art into a McDonald’s Happy Meal, they’re dumbing it down so much that it’s lost all value. On the other hand, this is something new in the world of writing, and new doesn’t automatically equal bad.

    Actually, no. I’m not of two minds about this. It’s a shitty idea. Manufacturing lighting in a bottle inevitably makes it worthless. I hope that the money they con out of fools dumb enough to mistake this brand of info-tainment for good writing keeps them warm at night when they realize just how much they’re actively contributing to the devolution of human society.

  • Strictly from an entertainment point of view I appreciate the Get Fisk series. I ride the subway in NYC everyday and love the ease of a quick read, easy to see font and the illustrations all at a fingers touch on my iPhone. I get where Potboiler is coming from in that respect. Sometimes I do not want to read an involved long book on my commute. Plus I have to say that while I don’t know if this style is the future of publishing, I definatly think many people’s attention span is not what it used to be considering the world is in such a rush to multitask, abbreviate words, etc….

  • As a daily commuter I think this is a very smart entertainment option. I am college educated and spend my days as a financial executive. I have to use brain power throughout the day. In my commute I want to spend that time relaxing before and after a stressful day. After reading this post last week I went to the site and while commuting today read one of the short book/ stories. It was not the most intellectual ‘read’ I have experienced, but on a crowded train I just want to have a pleasant distraction! That was what I experienced this morning. I enjoyed the short read, and felt like when I walked into my office I was ready for the day, having relaxed my brain a little before work. I think the founders of this concept are on to something great. It’s no different than a female lawyer I’m friends with who after a trial goes home and watches the reality shows on Bravo to totally de-stress. Life does not have to be intellectual all the time. Lets have a little fun now and then that doesn’t use all brain power. I rarely post on any site, but this one intrigued me and wanted to post my reactions. I would encourage commuters to go to this site and enjoy a quick read and have some fun on a typical boring commute.